The famed Los Angeles art dealer Douglas Chrismas was found guilty on Friday, May 31, of embezzling over $260,000 from his gallery’s bankruptcy estate in 2016. The 80-year-old creator of Ace Gallery, a major force for fifty years in the West Coast art scene, may spend up to fifteen years in federal prison.

During summer vacations, Chrismas began trading in art while still a young man in Vancouver, Canada. In the 1960s he relocated to California, where he founded and developed Ace Gallery while promoting Land Art, Light and Space, and Minimalism. He hosted early exhibitions for artists who are now well-known, including James Turrell, Michael Heizer, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra. 

Chrismas and his gallery were often involved in legal disputes despite their prominence. He filed for bankruptcy more than once by 2006, and by 2016, he was included as a defendant in more than 55 lawsuits, some of which were brought by artists who claimed they had been underpaid for sales revenues and had their works consigned without permission.

In 1986, Chrismas admitted to stealing seven pieces of art by Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Judd, and Robert Rauschenberg that were valued at a total of $1.3 million. He entered a plea of not guilty. He was also connected to a $1 billion global art fraud incident in 2007 that involved the sale of a piece of smuggled Roy Lichtenstein painting.

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2013 saw Ace Gallery file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with the goal of restructuring its business, assets, and obligations. Up until April 2016, when court-appointed forensic accountant, Sam Leslie, was brought in as an independent trustee to manage the gallery’s estate due to a late payment, Chrismas remained in charge of the establishment. 

Leslie’s original plan was to continue including Chrismas in the gallery’s sales and exhibitions. However, Leslie found out a month later that hundreds of works of art had been transported to private storage and millions of dollars had been siphoned off to secret accounts. Chrismas was fired as a result, and Leslie filed a legal complaint against him. 

Chrismas was compelled by a May 2022 court ruling to reimburse the gallery’s creditors for $14.2 million in sales profits. Last autumn, hundreds of pieces of art and memorabilia from Ace Gallery’s collection were put up for online auction in an effort to raise funds.

In July 2021, Chrismas was detained by the FBI amid the civil case on suspicion of embezzling around $265,000 from Ace Gallery’s bankruptcy estate prior to his deportation. Evidence revealed during the trial demonstrated that Chrismas unlawfully transferred the funds to Ace Museum, a non-profit organization under his control, with the intention of opening a public institution in Los Angeles’s Mid-Wilshire region. Three charges of embezzlement were presented against Chrismas by the prosecution. In the first, Ace Museum received a $50,000 cheque from the estate of Ace Gallery.

The second offense was diverting $100,000 in sales revenues that a third party owed Ace Gallery. The third count involved art sales profits to Ace Museum that totaled $114,595 that were misappropriated. In every instance, Chrismas utilized the money to continue paying the $225,000 monthly rent due to the landlord of the space that Ace Museum leased.

It took the jury less than an hour to find Chrismas guilty on all three charges of embezzlement. September 9th is the day of his planned sentence.